This morning I put up a poem-scream about the Virginia Tech shootings -- then deleted it. It was a concrete poem-scream which morphed from "bang" to "ban g" to "ban gu" to "ban gun" to "ban guns". I disabled comments because I didn't want to have a blogospheric debate about ethics, law, the Second Amendment. I certainly didn't want to hear anyone trying to justify the widespread carrying of weapons, nor did I want to be congratulated on my stance against them.
"Ban guns" is, of course, way too simplistic a message. But do you really want subtlety from a scream? It's my scream. And it's as much a scream-at as a scream-with. You're supposed to stand behind a nation when it suffers a misfortune of this magnitude, but here the "misfortune" is so hard-wired into the American system, the American way of life, that you'd be standing behind the problem, taking off your hat in honour of the problem, remaining, for two minutes, silent about the problem while the problem lays a floral wreath at the fresh grave of the problem.
More than ever, today, America feels like an Other. One cannot recommend policy to an Other. One must simply look on in silence, appalled, watching internal contradictions tearing the Other apart, yet knowing that the same dynamic built the Other, and that this dynamic will not be abandoned without the whole identity of the Other being abandoned. The shooter must shoot himself, and only then does the whole nightmare begin to end.
And yet the guns don't die as readily as the people they kill. Metal is tougher than flesh. The guns won't die without political will -- which one doesn't see in the US for the same reasons that one doesn't see Tony Blair condemning bombing, even while he condemns suicide bombing -- and certainly not when guns are a constitutional right.
The deleted entry used the same graphic I'm using here, a graphic which shows to what degree the American nation (and perhaps, by extension, a little less obviously, any nation) is founded on systematic violence. There, visually represented, is the same horror we heard on the cell phone video footage students recorded. The grim exterior of the building, and that seemingly endless banging. Horror beyond all the platitudes. Horror intimately tied to the braying donkey of the Absurd, the pragmatic, the routine, the logistical -- what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. A horror that calmly reloads, and that thinks the way you think, with the same words, the same basic concept of what a human is. A horror whose essential similarity to you makes you consider yourself, temporarily, as the Other today.
Bulletin boards and blogs were quick to link to the LiveJournal
of Wayne Chiang, a student at Virginia Tech, a gun enthusiast who'd recently split up with his girlfriend and seemed like too perfect a match not to be the killer. That he turned out, in fact, to be just another gun-loving student is cold comfort; his journal makes very clear how much guns have become an aesthetic
in the US, a vision of beauty and social power, the way food is in Japan. It's because it's systematic -- a way of seeing, a habitus
-- that this lightning will indeed strike twice. And then twice again.
Although it may not seem connected at first glance, this links up, for me, with another story in the press at the moment, Bryan Ferry's comments in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper about his admiration for Nazi iconography. "My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves," Ferry enthused, after admitting to the reporter that he calls his recording studio the Fuhrerbunker. "I'm talking about Leni Riefenstahl's movies and Albert Speer's buildings and the mass parades and the flags - just amazing. Really beautiful."
Ferry later apologized profusely
I feel very contradictory things about this. It's become a commonplace to praise Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" or the cut of Nazi uniforms, while qualifying that -- naturally -- with condemnations of Hitler and the Holocaust. I personally don't like Nazi iconography at all, but I've certainly crossed swords with Marxy over the appearance of swastikas in fashion outfits in Harajuku. And I think I disagree with Steve Heller's conclusion that the swastika is a symbol beyond redemption
The reason I disagree is that I'm so steeped in Saussure, and his idea about the relationship between signifier and signified being arbitrary. If that's true -- and it obviously is, because we make language ourselves -- it means that no signifier should be vilified or anathematized, especially not one that's changed hands and been recontextualized as many times as the swastika. Why must this polysemous shape now forever remain a Nazi symbol? Why has something so slippery become a final destination? Does evil need a logo? Surely keeping the swastika forever Nazi gives Nazism more power that it deserves -- makes it, in fact, a sort of timeless principle.
This is a problem for me. On the one hand -- under Japanese influence -- I very much want ethics and aesthetics to be seamless. I think there is a politics of texture. Yesterday's entry about a pudding factory in Hokkaido was political, for instance. I very much liked the Quaker-like aesthetics of the wooden house the pudding couple had built for themselves, the simple, modest and sustainable style of their lives. Perhaps I should say "seemingly sustainable" -- they appear to fly back to Tokyo every other week.
My feeling that aesthetics and ethics (or texture and politics, if you prefer) are all of a piece is what made me lash out
at some of the bands who played the Whitney Peace Tower show last year. Not only was Japanther's music aggressive, with a puppet show of gigantic demonic clashing animals accompanying it, but when a veteran 1960s peace campaigner complained about how this was "the kind of music they listen to in the tanks in Iraq" she got shouted down angrily by drummer Ian Vanek.
The fact that I sense some kind of fascism in rock music (especially live rock music) is absolutely central to my lifelong avoidance of the form. And rock stars don't seem to disagree with me, just disagree that it's bad, or matters. In 1975 a coked- and occulted-up David Bowie called Hitler
"the first rock star -- he staged a whole country". Keith Moon liked to dress up as a Nazi, and Bobby Gillespie is fond of throwing Hitler salutes, probably more in tribute to Iggy than Adolf. What Ferry is saying now is a tame, drawing room version of the same thing.
The problem with condemning such antics is that linking aesthetics and ethics is a kind of rockism
. It's anti-Saussure in the sense that it asserts permanent links between form and content, symbols and their meanings, smoke and fire. And that's anti-theatre and anti-art in the end. As well as calling Hitler "the first rock star", Bowie talked in 1970s interviews about how art is "fabulously violent" in a purely cathartic, theatrical way -- how in art you can crash the plane and walk away. Art is virtual. And that's why we don't censor stuff, even if it shows people breaking the law. We assume that the audience knows the difference between dreaming and waking, playing a video game and going to school, art and life.
And yet smoke usually does connect to fire. American children have watched 16,000 murders on TV by the time they're 18. Wayne Chiang poses with guns -- so did Kurt Cobain. It's theatre (art, and aribitrary) right up until the moment it breaks through into life -- and death. We're all very surprised -- and not surprised at all.
Even gentle Stephin Merritt -- "just a great composer and not a violent man" -- lost his composure and shot Ferdinand de Saussure
. Okay, in a song. In real life Merritt had his very own Bryan-Ferry-Is-A-Nazi moment when Sasha Frere-Jones called him a cracker
for not liking hip hop because of all the murder in it. If he'd let Saussure live, Merritt might have found a way to love rap for, oh, you know, the samples or something, and turned a deaf ear to the sickening sound of gunfire banging away in the middle of it, just like Bryan Ferry managed to do with Nazism.